Not all of the economic news is as grim as the virus
By Janet Reynolds
Even as COVID-19 has ravaged the American economy, the pandemic has proven an economic boon for some in the Adirondack Park.
Yes, many restaurants, some hotels and motels, and most arts and entertainment venues continue to struggle. But for others who could more easily pivot to different operating models or who make their living outdoors, nature seekers have delivered cash and consolation.
In some ways the Adirondack Park was perfectly positioned for pandemic life. When travel restrictions began to lift, people started looking for a safe place within driving distance to try to salvage summers without camps or vacations requiring air travel.
Economic winners and losers
“The Adirondacks probably had the best summer of anybody,” says Mark Dorr, president of the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association. “The winners this summer were the Adirondacks, the Catskills and Finger Lakes, Long Island too — those areas where there are a lot of outdoor activities. Some Adirondack members said they haven’t had a season this great in 20 years.”
That doesn’t mean the North Country boomed through the pandemic. Restaurants and pubs struggled with health restrictions and wary customers, and some went under. By the end of November, private-sector employment in Adirondack counties was down 5-8% from the previous year, according to the state Department of Labor.
Those losses didn’t match the statewide 10% loss, though, or New York City’s 12%.
Hotels and other lodgings
Lodging statistics within the park bear out Dorr’s assessment of the park’s relatively good standing. While lodging numbers showed a 68% decline over 2019 between March and June – during New York’s initial lockdown – they were down only 8% in revenues from July through October, according to James McKenna, chief executive officer of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. Private rentals had a 20.5% increase from July through September over 2019.
Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid and Nelson’s Cottages in Inlet are two examples of pandemic winners in the lodging industry. In May, Julie Meeks, whose family owns Nelson’s Cottages, had worried. Cancellations were the rule of the day, as the lifting of New York State restrictions remained a moving target. Eventually, her summer reality proved far different.
“It was the best summer we’ve ever had,” she says, noting it was the busiest June since Nelson’s was founded in the 1950s. July and August were similar, she says, adding “we had the busiest fall we’ve ever had. People were coming in the middle of the week. We burned three times the amount of campfire wood we’ve ever burned.”
Despite cancellations, slots filled quickly, thanks in part to social media. “I created the Facebook page in 2014 and it took five years to get to 925 followers,” Meeks says, noting the page jumped to 2,200 followers in the summer of 2020. Whenever a cancellation occurred, she posted it on the Facebook page “and within minutes people were messaging me right and left.”
Meeks is hopeful these new visitors will return. “We have had more requests already for 2021 than we have ever had for another year,” she says. “I don’t know if we will break a record again, but I anticipate seeing a lot of these people again.”
Chris Jarvis, director of rooms at Mirror Lake Inn, tells a similar story. The inn closed until the end of June but bookings took off almost immediately once it reopened. “It was extremely busy from the get-go” he says. “It turned out to be one of our busiest summers ever.”
Mirror Lake Inn was near capacity through most of August, with general summer occupancy up anywhere from 15% to 25%, according to Jarvis. “We all felt like after being closed there would be pent-up demand,” he says. “We didn’t anticipate it being as significant or as sustained as it turned out to be.”
“People see the Adirondacks as a safe place to go with lots of outdoor opportunities,” he says, adding he was cautiously optimistic about winter bookings after a strong holiday week, “and we’ve put a lot of effort into safety measures and publicizing them too.”
Not surprisingly, many businesses focused on outdoor activities did fairly well, too. Ed Kanze, a naturalist guide based in Bloomingdale, anticipated a summer with little to no guiding.
“With the lockdown, I was expecting to have no guiding work. I figured I was going to be moping around this summer, so I told (my daughter) ‘I’ll build you a barn.’”
He ended up spending most days guiding until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and then worked on the barn until past dark.
“This year brought me a lot of people, but also the people who came were hungrier than ever for what I do,” says the 64-year-old, who has been leading walks for 40 years. “They were craving some sanity, some connection to nature.
“I was twice as busy this summer as some previous summers and it was very consistent.”
Guides were busy at High Peaks Cyclery in Lake Placid too. While the store lost a large chunk of business from canceled work due to closed summer camps, church groups and festivals, it kept guides busy with canoe trips, rock climbing and hiking trips. “The guides were busy with private groups and careful select groups of their own little pods,” says owner Brian Delaney.
Outdoor recreation rentals and sales
Rentals and sales were strong as well, Delaney says. “I had ordered hundreds of bikes to upgrade our rental fleets for the summer programs we anticipated,” he says. With the summer programs canceled, Delaney rented them and sold them instead. “That helped tremendously.”
The increase in visitors needing hiking and backpacking equipment proved to be an economic plus, too. “It was like the ‘70s and the backpacking craze,” he says. “It was Jack Kerouac all over again. We sold 16 pairs of hiking boots in one day.”
Josh Trombley, chief executive officer of Hornbeck Boats in Olmstedville, says paddle and boat businesses also saw increases. “I have some guilt about our success this year,” he says. “It was the best year ever and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.”
He and five employees spend most winters building up inventory for sale the following spring and summer. Not this winter. After blowing through their inventory last spring and summer, they are booked solid with commissions for the summer of 2021. “We take deposits nearly every day for boats,” Trombley says. “We finally finished boats that had been ordered in the summer. Now we’re building boats that have been ordered for spring. Then we will start on (the summer boat) inventory so we will start behind a bit on inventory.”
As Trombley saw the lockdown coming, he began rethinking how the business could be run. From March 30 to May 30, Hornbeck Boats was entirely contactless pick-up or free local delivery. “I made multiple trips with a trailer to Vermont, Syracuse and beyond,” he says. “We had the best April ever.”
When the store reopened, the entire operation moved outside and was by appointment only.
“Our calendar was full from the day we opened until September. If a cancellation happened, it was filled 10 minutes later with someone calling,” he says, “and everybody who came was buying a boat. They were all serious.”
He and his workers have been building four boats a day since June. “I’m operating at full capacity. I could not build more boats if I wanted to.”
But it wasn’t just those serving people interested in the outdoors who found surprise economic success during the pandemic. With people spending more time in their homes, industries catering to home improvements cashed in.
Home improvements, rustic furniture
Bill Coakley owns Coakley Home and Hardware in Saranac Lake and Canton. “Everything is up,” he says, citing the paint, flooring, kitchen and bath, and lawn and garden departments in particular.
His consistent challenge is getting supplies. “The supply chain has been severely impacted across the board,” he says. “We could only get about half of what we ordered each week. We had to source other providers.”
As a result, a kitchen cabinet order that before COVID might be a three- to four-week wait, now might take twice that time.
Certain Adirondack artisans have reported an uptick in business. Jerry Stipp, owner of Owls Head Mountain Adirondack Rustic Furniture in Keene, says his business is better now than it was in the 1970s, when he owned four stores in Pennsylvania.
Stipp, who moved to Keene in 1997, employs local artisans to create custom log tables, corner hutches, chairs, dressers and more. Stipp says he has about a dozen men working for him but could hire more if he could find people with the right skills. “One of my men is 285 items behind right now on things he has to make.”
The Hub on the Hill is an example of a business model whose ability to pivot during the pandemic has enabled local farmers to offset some of the sales they may have lost to restaurant closures while also offering park residents facing food insecurity a potential solution.
With a mission to support and strengthen the local food system, the nonprofit Hub partnered early in the pandemic with AdkAction to provide free food and delivery to homes throughout the park. That program, which gave farmers an outlet for their food, has morphed into Farm Fresh Packages, an affordable way for residents to get fresh, local food to their homes.
“It was a hat trick,” says Katie Wilson, a business development and marketing consultant who began working with the Hub right before the lockdown. “We could help farmers, help people and improve the food system by mobilizing this home delivery system.”
Since the pandemic began, operations have expanded 25%, according to Wilson. The Hub has hired six employees, increased its routes by 500 miles a week, delivered more than 60,000 meals to food-insecure families, and collaborated with about 70 farms. Each week a fleet of Hub drivers travels over 2,100 miles, delivering farm-fresh food as far as New York City.
Businesses see a downturn
Others in the food business, of course, have not been as lucky. Chris Ericson, president of the New York State Brewers Association and owner of Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, worries for the future. “No restaurant can operate at 50% capacity,” he says. “I’ve had Q1 and Q2 on my desk for projections and I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what the winter ski season will be like. There are no hockey tournaments. Are people going to come and ski like they hiked this summer?
“After 25 years in the business, I could usually predict every day’s sales within 10%. Now everything is an unknown.”
That uncertainty is echoed by other retailers too. While the summer tourism season was decent for Goody Goody’s, a toy and game store in Saranac Lake, owner Dan Sporn isn’t sure what will happen next.
“I consider myself extremely lucky,” he says. “People had money this summer and were spending it. Financially I’m waiting to see what happens next. We employed fewer people over the summer, but still we were working and we’re happy.”
As the pandemic nears the year mark, wait-and-see is likely the mindset for many Adirondack business owners. “This is going to get more challenging before it gets better,” says Victoria Duley, executive director of the Adirondack Economic Development Corp. “I do worry we will see more closures, either because they can’t sustain or take on the debt load. I do think there will be a lot of shakeouts in the coming months.”
Still, she says, the companies that survive will have “already done a great job managing their expenses and business planning,” and will be stronger for it when the national economy improves.